Sunday, November 14, 2010
Fred Van Eps and Vess L. Ossman - Kings of the Ragtime Banjo (Yazoo, 1974)
How does one even begin to describe these recordings? Kings of the Ragtime Banjo ranks among the most obscure albums ever released by Yazoo, which is saying something considering the label's generally esoteric nature to begin with. While blues, jazz, gospel, and hillbilly artists receive all of the attention in studies of American roots music, ragtime performers rarely enter the conversation. Every now and then, someone might mention pianist Scott Joplin. But this style is greatly misunderstood as demonstrated by the fact that many of the works credited to the genre's best-known composer were actually inspired by material that was originally performed by black string bands. The numerous white musicians who specialized in ragtime during the 1890s and early 1900s have been almost completely forgotten, despite the fact that they were some of the most popular musicians of their era.
This LP not only helps bring attention to genius of Vess L. Ossman and Fred Van Eps, it also demonstrates the exalted position that their chosen instrument held in American culture during the 1900-1923 period during which these sides were recorded. Long before the guitar achieved preeminence in the United States, playing banjo was all the rage. While today we tend to think of it as something originally exclusive to black songsters and early country musicians from Appalachia, by the late 19th century the instrument had transcended its humble origins and became accepted by parlor society. Ossman and Van Eps' live and recorded performances of rags, marches, two-steps, and cakewalks did much to make this possible by helping introduce the banjo to middle and upper class audiences in America, Britain, and Europe.
Sylvester "Vess" Louis Ossman (1868-1923) was one of our country's first recordings stars, having waxed his first cylinders in 1896 and being one of the first to release flat discs for a new invention, the gramophone, the following year. His sides as both an accompanist and featured performer sold well, and his reputation was further enhanced by well-received performances for Theodore Roosevelt and King Edward VII of England during the early 1900s. Ossman attributed his musical prowess to a strict practice regimen of ten hours per day during the first three years he played banjo and thenceforth at least four hours per day to maintain his skills. Not surprisingly, the speed at which he could perform on his instrument was nothing short of exhilarating as his seven tracks readily make apparent. Since these recordings are really old (100 years or more), the sound quality is obviously not the best, and it's not always clear what other instruments are present. Pianist Frank P. Banta was a regular accompanist to Ossman up until his early death in 1904. Afterward, the banjoist often recorded with Audley Dudley on mandolin and Roy Butin on harp-guitar. "Smoky Mokes," "Peaceful Henry," and "Rusty Rag" are charming duet instrumentals with Banta that were issued between 1900 and 1902, while "Yankee Land," "The Smiler," "Popularity," and "St. Louis Tickle" (all committed to wax circa 1904-1910) find Ossman playing in orchestral settings.
Fred Van Eps (1878-1960) was a disciple of Ossman who, among other methods, learned to play his instrument by practicing to the cylinders of his idol. Not only did the protege build his reputation through performances arranged by Ossman's booking agency in the early 1900s, he also effectively replaced him as America's most popular recorded banjo player when the elder musician decided to concentrate on touring after 1910. Although the picking of Van Eps may be more precise, the liner notes quote him as acknowledging that "Ossman had a certain rhythmic facility that I don't think any other banjoist has ever equalled." In the 1910s and early 1920s, Van Eps achieved great popularity from performing and recording dance material in both trio (which typically included alto saxophonist Nathan Glantz and pianist Frank Edgar Banta, son of the aforementioned Frank P.) and small group formats. Orchestral arrangements prevail on the seven rags from 1911-1923 presented here, including "Red Pepper Rag," "Black Diamond Rag," "Whipped Cream Rag," "Ragtime Oriole," "Junk Man Rag," "Policy King" (my favorite track on this LP), and "White Wash Man," and consequently may sound like hot jazz numbers to some ears. At the very least, these two styles share a common ancestor. Fred was also the father of jazz guitarist George Van Eps, a great musician in his own right whose selected recordings can be heard on the equally compelling Yazoo album, Fun on the Frets: Early Jazz Guitar.
1. Smoky Mokes - Vess L. Ossman
2. Peaceful Henry - Vess L. Ossman
3. Yankee Land - Vess L. Ossman
4. The Smiler - Vess L. Ossman
5. Popularity - Vess L. Ossman
6. Rusty Rags Medley - Vess L. Ossman
7. St. Louis Tickle - Vess L. Ossman
8. Red Pepper Rag - Fred Van Eps
9. Black Diamond Rag - Fred Van Eps
10. Whipped Cream Rag - Fred Van Eps
11. Ragtime Oriole - Fred Van Eps
12. Junk Man Rag - Fred Van Eps
13. Policy King - Fred Van Eps
14. White Wash Man - Fred Van Eps